Asking Questions, All the Time

Asking and answering questions while reading is essential for comprehension. While teachers certainly pose questions of students about texts, students should be taught to ask questions while reading, and then to use the text as well as their own experiences and background knowledge to answer them. Research shows that proficient readers ask and answer questions often, so teaching students to use this strategy will prepare them to become competent and confident lifelong readers.

good question. Photo courtesy of e-magic, flickr.

In the classroom, teachers tend to focus on asking questions after students have read a section, chapter, or book. However, students should be engaged in asking and answering questions before, during, and after reading. Asking questions before reading helps students access and use their prior knowledge as they construct meaning from a text. Asking questions while reading fosters active engagement with the text, and questioning after reading can be used to check for comprehension and encourage the transfer and application of knowledge.

Many different instructional techniques exist for teaching students to question as they read. Question the Author (QtA), Question-Answer-Relationship (QAR), and teaching the difference between “thin” (factual) and “thick” (inferential) questions are popular approaches. Regardless of the approach used, teachers should take time to model the strategy and make their thinking visible for students. Many students do not naturally ask questions as they read, so witnessing the strategy in action is an important step in learning to pose questions independently.

The resources described below provide further information about questioning and some of the instructional strategies used to teach questioning within the context of reading.

An overview of questioning. Includes links to additional resources.

Question the Author (QtA)
This guide provides information about Question the Author, a comprehension strategy that asks students to pose questions while reading a text, rather than after reading. The strategy is primarily used with nonfiction texts, and is appropriate for students in grade 3 and up.

Questioning the Text
This article, written by Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding author Stephanie Harvey, describes a four-step instructional sequence that models the questioning strategy for students.

Question-Answer-Relationship (QAR)
An overview of the QAR strategy.

Thick or Thin?
This web page includes downloadable posters that illustrate the difference between “thick” and “thin” questions as well as prompts for asking “thick “questions.

Questions Before, During, and After Reading
This article discusses why questioning is important as a comprehension strategy, how to use questioning before, during, and after reading, and how to include questioning in all content areas. It also includes links to several lesson plans about questioning.

Questioning in Science

Asking questions is also a key component of science. The National Science Education Standards includes asking questions (about objects, organisms, and events in the environment) as one of the fundamental abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry (Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry). However, asking questions in science is somewhat different from asking questions while reading.

Science educators often refer to “testable” or “productive” questions. These types of questions concern natural phenomena, encourage investigation, and rely on evidence –based responses. They cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response. These questions are open-ended, and do not have a single correct answer.  There are six different types of testable or productive questions:

  • Attention-Focusing Questions. These types of questions help children focus on using their senses to observe. “What do you notice?” and “How does it feel/sound/look/etc.?” are examples of attention-focusing questions.
  • Measuring and Counting Questions. These types of questions involve quantitative answers. These types of questions begin with phrases such as “How many…?”, “How long…?”, or “How much…?”
  • Comparison Questions. As the name suggests, comparison questions ask students to describe how things are alike and different. Question stems include “How are…different?”, “In how many ways are…alike?”, and so on.
  • Action Questions. Action questions involve students in doing science. “What happens if…” or “What would happen if…” are examples of question starters.
  • Problem-Posing Questions. These encourage students to test questions and solve problems. Question stems include “Can you find a way to…?” and “How might you…?”
  • Reasoning Questions. This type of question asks students to consider how something happens or works. “How would you explain…?” is the start of a commonly-used reasoning question.

You’ll notice that many of the question stems described above include the word “how,” but few involve the word “why.” In general, “why” questions lead students to look for a single correct answer, and often one repeated from a textbook or other reference source. While some sources refer to these as “unproductive” questions, I prefer not to use this term with students. In my opinion, calling a question “unproductive” might lead students to believe that the question is not important, when many worthwhile questions cannot be answered through scientific investigation. Instead, I prefer to classify questions into two groups: those that can be answered by science and those that cannot.

“How” questions, including the ones describe above, are often more conducive to scientific inquiry. Teachers can help students learn the difference between questions that can be answered by science and those than cannot. They can also help students rephrase questions to make them more appropriate for scientific inquiry.

Finally, it is important to understand that reading to answer a question does not necessarily imply that the question is not scientifically oriented. Scientists often read as they seek to answer questions, but that reading is always framed within the context of scientific investigations.  Teachers who understand the complexities of questioning in reading and in science can help their students become proficient with the strategy in both content areas.

Productive Questions
This web page describes the six types of productive questions and provides examples.

Inquiry, Literacy, and the Learning Cycle
Scroll down to the webinar “Inquiry, Literacy, and the Learning Cycle.” This web seminar includes a brief discussion of testable questions.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. Jessica is an education resource specialist at The Ohio State University and project director of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. She has taught in elementary and middle school settings. Email Jessica at

Copyright July 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1034922. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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